Books: Time to kiss your genitals goodbye
Sunday 08 March 1998
SELF-DESCRIBED "gender outlaw" Kate Bornstein, as well as being beyond gender, is a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I, on the other hand, prefer the original, sweaty, sexist Sixties series. Perhaps this is why, after totting up my score on the "Gender Aptitude Test" in "hir" (sic) My Gender Workbook ("how to become a real man, a real woman, the real you or something else entirely"), I found myself in the top- scoring (ie oppressive), "perfectly gendered" (ie reactionary) category and was mockingly informed: "You're Captain James T Kirk!"
Obviously my role-model should have been the "transgendered" android Data. However, Kirk is not most people's idea of a "real man". He wears a corset, tight trousers, lots of make-up, and the camera lens is slathered in Vaseline every time it goes in for a close-up. Moreover, he has a suspiciously intense friendship with his odd-looking Science Officer who goes into a sulk every time Kirk falls for one of those alien bee-hive drag-queens. So perhaps I'm not so happy to be told that my gender is Kirk, after all.
The problem with Bornstein's book is that like most efforts at "re-education", it only succeeds in re-ingraining your worst prejudices. Its finger-wagging, Maoist approach to the "false-consciousness" of those of us unfortunate enough not to be transgendered like Bornstein makes you rather fond of gender - that old-fashioned system of oppression that Bornstein rails against. Sentences such as: "Gender over the past couple of millennia has been twisted into a very lop-sided power arena as represented by the gender / identity / power pyramid" don't exactly charm, either.
Nor, frankly, does the cutesy style of this harangue - presented in the form of a school exercise book, with tests, diagrams, role-play / sex-talk conversations from the Internet, wacky fonts and "fun" exclamation marks and camp tone - succeed in disguising its essentially serious looniness.
Faced with the goody-goody characters in TNG you can't help but side with the baddies. Likewise, who, faced with the multiple choice questions here, would have any choice at all?
"Do you have a 'type' of person you regularly fall for?
A: Definitely, yes.
B: I try to keep my mind open about this sort of thing, but I usually fall for one type.
C: I seem to fall for lots of 'types' of people, but usually they are all the same gender.
D: What? You want to know if I fall for typists? What a silly question. I fall for anyone I can connect with and who connects with me."
Just reading the "D" (right-on) option will have everyone ticking the "A" (right-off) option every time.
There are countless such exercises in this book. After a while - say five minutes - even the guilty thrill of ticking the "wrong" box isn't enough to inoculate you against the kind of boredom that will make your genitals pack their bags and leave home, slamming the door so hard on their way out that your nipples fall off.
But perhaps this is the point. Kate Bornstein is neither a man nor a woman but "hir" own special transgressive creation - and, inevitably, something of a travelling circus. "Ze" was born male, raised as a boy, opted for a sex-change in adulthood, and became a woman. A few years later, she got tired of being a woman so she stopped - but didn't want to become a man again. And I think many of us can identify with that. Perhaps this is why "Ze" has become an evangelist for the joys of being transgendered.
"Gender", which used to be a polite euphemism for sex, has come to stand for something separate from (if related to) the fact of internal/external genital organs. Being a man or a woman is not dependent on the shape of your squishy bits any more, apparently. In other words, "male" is not the referent of "man". More than that, to take the postmodern / gender studies line, they are both signifiers without referent, since even "male" and "female" are not unambiguous, concrete terms, given the hermaphrodite tendencies of many babies who have to be surgically altered to fit the categories, and the sex-changing tendencies of certain adult humans, not to mention certain fish that have been in the news lately.
But acknowledging that gender is constructed, and that the relationship between sex, gender and sexuality is not as adamantine or natural or coherent as we like to think is one thing, but to suggest that you can simply reconstruct gender in a fashion that suits your shoes, or dispense with it altogether, is quite another neutered thing (unless you happen to be David Bowie and it's the early Seventies). "The way you live without gender is you look for where gender is, and then you go someplace else," says Bornstein. Yeah, but where do you get hold of a flying saucer at affordable rates?
Freud suggested that the first question we ask ourselves on meeting someone was: are they male or female? It may be that the question people should be asking themselves is: are they a sci-fi fan? As my pre-op tranny (ie not transgendered) friend Michelle, obsessed with Star Wars, remarked after dipping into Bornstein's book and tossing it aside in frustration: "Bleedin' 'ell, I suppose my gender is Wookie!"
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